Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called the startling rate of suicide in the military an “epidemic.” On average, one active duty soldier kills him- or herself each day, twice the number of daily combat deaths and twice the civilian rate of suicide. Suicides have jumped dramatically since 2005, increasing by 18% in just the last year. The suicide rate for veterans is also alarming—veterans make up approximately 20% of all U.S. suicide deaths each year. Eighteen deaths from suicide per day are veterans.

Ms. Garrick and Dr. Branson have many years of experience working with veterans and are at the forefront of the fight against the suicide epidemic plaguing our armed forces. In addition to examining the magnitude of the problem, Ms. Garrick and Dr. Branson spoke about coordinated suicide prevention efforts between the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). They also discussed the need to synchronize these efforts between State and local government; veterans’ groups; community- and faith-based organizations; colleges and universities; and health care providers.

Calling the suicide rate for military members “unacceptable,” Ms. Garrick outlined the priority areas that the DoD is focusing on, based on recommendations from a task force formed in August 2010. Some of the recommendations that have been implemented include the formation of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, headed by Ms. Garrick; improved data collection and demographics on military suicides; and collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include current or former military status on death certificates. One of the biggest advancements has been the efforts by the DoD and VA to streamline their suicide prevention messaging and to integrate both agencies’ mental health strategies for active servicemembers and veterans. DoD and VA fact sheets, pamphlets and brochures, websites, and other materials concerning suicide prevention now share the same messaging and information to make it less confusing or daunting for servicemembers and veterans in a crisis. This includes the same 1-800 crisis hotline used both agencies in order to make is easier for current and former military members and their families to use and to get the help they need. In 2011, about 9,000 identified active duty members used the crisis line. Since its launch in 2007, the crisis line has answered more than 500,000 calls and has referred some 55,000 veterans to local suicide prevention coordinators for same-day or next-day help.

Dr. Branson discussed how these collaborative messaging efforts, along with a newly annual DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference, are a big step toward enabling current military members and veterans to get mental health assistance and treatment through this integrated system, especially for those transitioning from active service. Dr. Branson described in detail the steps taken to help someone who calls the suicide hotline, whether or not that person is ready to go to or seek help from the VA. She also spoke about her role in educating communities on suicide prevention and connecting community partners with resources such as the Veterans Mental Health Coalition.

Attendees included public and private mental health experts; funders; and representatives from State and local government, veterans’ groups, health care systems, and colleges and universities. Topics discussed by the attendees and speakers also touched on what community- and faith-based organizations, employers, and providers can do about suicide prevention and how to better partner with the DoD/VA; where veterans can go for services or help if they do not want to go through the VA or if they have been dishonorably discharged and are ineligible for VA services; and how to reduce the stigma of veterans and PTSD and improve military cultural competency in communities.

Learn more about NYHealth efforts to improve veterans’ health.

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